(Paul Schrader, 2023)
DCP Courtesy: Transmission Films
Classification: MA 15+
Still screening at all good arthouse cinemas in / around Melbourne
Words by Digby Houghton
A man sits alone in a dark room. He’s jotting ideas in a journal, lit only by a lamp next to his desk. He is shirtless with his back facing the camera and tattoos can be gleamed on his body which will later be identifiable as swastikas. This aggressive shot opens Paul Schrader’s lacklustre new film Master Gardener. It is the third and final installment in Schrader’s proclaimed ‘Man in a Room Trilogy’. The preceding two films in the series are First Reformed from 2017 and 2021’s The Card Counter. Master Gardener completes the series by supplanting a man with an unforgivable past who is seeking redemption. The aforementioned shot also establishes the cliché through which the film functions. How many times have we seen this ill-fated hero, or anti-hero, in a myriad of noir films? You might be mistaken for considering Master Gardener as a sincere work because the underlying irony of the film is difficult to glean over. From being a key figure of the New Hollywood movement, writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull as well as directing Hardcore and American Gigolo, Schrader has lost grasp of the pulse.
The shirtless man in question is Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), who’s in witness protection after snitching on his former gang members - a group of white supremacists. He is now the horticulturalist of Gracewood Gardens which are owned and managed by Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), his romantic partner. Mrs. Haverhill is an iron-fisted and unwavering woman, played brilliantly by Weaver. She approaches Narvel about her grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) who is a drug addict in a dangerous relationship with R.G (Jared Bankens). Maya is bi-racial and wants to be more mature but Schrader’s screenplay leaves her sounding neither youthful nor particularly dishevelled. Narvel finds Maya talented and wishes to amend the fraught relationship between her and Mrs. Haverhill but the uncompromising nature of Mrs. Haverhill proves challenging.
Master Gardener struggles as a sincere film because Schrader constantly finds ways to transpose moral judgements through characters using metaphor throughout his filmography (like an insomniac taxi driver). In Master Gardener Schrader’s screenplay uses the symbolism of roots, seeds, plants and their blossoming patterns to draw parallels with the unjustified violence of racism. Narvel can only comprehend the order and beauty of nature shown in his long monologues about the purity of seeds and their perpetual lifespans. This serves as the metaphor for his past life as a white supremacist and positions himself as a reformed man. By pushing beyond simplistic boundaries of good and evil - or black and white - Master Gardener transcends the genre trappings of classic film noir. However, the metaphoric vessels through which Schrader has chosen to explore masculinity in his trilogy can be seen as ironic - a Protestant minister losing his devotion (First Reformed), a former Abu Ghraib torturer (The Card Counter) and now a reformed neo-nazi. These characters allow the director to comment on the wokeness seeping into the mainstream but Master Gardener fails to offer anything beyond an unambiguous portrayal of toxic masculinity.
When Maya begins her apprenticeship with Narvel, he becomes both protective of and seduced by her. This leads to an unforeseen love affair between the two causing Narvel to reveal his torso to Maya who is shocked - Narvel responds, “it is easy to hate people when you don’t know anything else''. Because of Mrs. Haverhill’s unfaltering attitude towards her grand-niece she banishes the couple from her estate and the characters begin a road trip. The kitsch score bereft of any sense of soul complements their journey away from the grip of Mrs. Haverhill. The films focus on the liberation of the open road connects it with films that typified the New Hollywood movement like the definitive road film Easy Rider.
The New Hollywood movement importantly coalesced around the time film schools were introduced and revolved around directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. This liege of directors were also referred to as ‘movie brats’ because in distinction from previous decades in Hollywood they sought to eschew the obligations of the studios. The road film offered an opportunity for America to envision itself and whilst Master Gardener carries the undertones of a noir it also achieves status as a road movie and a romance about bi-racial love. The latter genre is something Schrader’s collaborator Martin Scorsese recently tackled in his long durée movie Killers of the Flower Moon.
For all of Schrader’s former glory, there are elements of this film that reveal he is out of touch. An example of this vacuity concerned one of the film’s central themes surrounding the connection between people’s race and the diversity of species of plants. However, it struggled in the intimate moments when Narvel and Maya reveal their private secrets. It’s also never established why Narvel cares so much about Maya. The production design reeked of a non-place and it feels like Schrader failed to consider design elements at all. That fact that Master Gardener was nearly shot in Melbourne is indicative of this - any city would have sufficed.
Master Gardener is a film that is distinctly recognisable as a Schrader movie, utilising the plot conventions of the hardboiled noir to a new effect. Schrader continues to transpose the metaphors of jobs with limited upwards mobility (The Card Counter, American Gigolo and Taxi Driver) in order to place moral judgment on his characters. Narvel’s commitment to Maya redresses his previous prejudices but the sincerity, or lack thereof, for his motivations makes the film a failure.
For those wanting to catch up on Schrader’s two other ‘Man in a Room’ films you can watch First Reformed on Google for $2.99 and The Card Counter on Netflix or on Google for $3.99.. . .LINK TO FILM LISTINGS